A regional, farmer-driven approach to labor issues
Vital Communities’ Valley Food & Farm (VFF) program will build on 20 years of experience as facilitator and convener to work with both sides of the farm labor equation, farmers and workers, to address a perennial challenge to farm growth in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont: labor recruitment and retention. Fifty-eight percent of our region’s 400+ farmers wish to grow their businesses, and cite labor as their number one obstacle. Having recently piloted a New Farmer peer group funded by the USDA Rural Business Enterprise (RBEG) program, we will assemble a similar group of experienced farmers from small to midsized Vermont and New Hampshire diversified farms to troubleshoot and brainstorm about labor issues specific to our region. A collaboration team of 5-8 farmers will be compensated to gather additional data (e.g., pay rates, employee benefits, etc.) and review project outcomes. VFF will also interview and collect data from prospective and experienced labor about their perspective. In addition to sharing regional and Vermont-New Hampshire statewide farm labor data, VFF will work with both parties to develop/host an online Upper Valley farm jobs clearinghouse, a summary of findings/best practices, and dissemination throughout statewide agricultural networks, relevant schools and membership groups, CRAFT programs, and others. By partnering with farmers, farm labor, and service providers at the regional level, we seek to build a unified identity and momentum toward labor solutions that will contribute to the Upper Valley’s reputation as an excellent environment for farmworkers.
The questions we seek to answer include 1) What are regional barriers to and incentives for farmworker employment and retention? 2) How can farmers increase hiring and retention rates? 3) How can the region ensure that skilled workers find the Upper Valley a welcoming and preferable place of employment and opportunity? 4) What best practices should be promoted regionally for hiring, retaining, and managing a skilled workforce?
2016 CRAFT Participants
Compiled a record of existing online tools for finding farm labor. Results included all regional tools for farms to find labor and for labor to find farm jobs. We also identified national tools that appeared to be designed well and effective.
Created a 16 question survey which was circulated to current farm labor (including workers, apprentices, and interns) through the regional CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) participants and through Upper Valley farm contacts. The survey questions were designed to learn how these farm workers found their current jobs and what they were looking for when searching for an agricultural job. We have results from 17 workers and are continuing outreach through the winter season. The results from the survey, so far, affirm many of the common assumptions such as the value of providing housing for farm labor and the importance of earning a livable wage. More than 80% of respondents found their job online and most said that farmers could improve on their communications around farm management and explanations of job expectations during the hiring process.
Worked on developing proto-type for online farm job directory that would be part of the resources for farmers on the Vital Communities website. Webmaster is working out programming glitch with the way the new directory interacts with our website, so there is no sample to share in this report. We did provide a mock up of the new page to farmers and have been getting their feedback on design and content. Making connections with potential sources of farm labor including Vermont Technical College, Vermont Youth Conservation Corp, Randolph Technical School, Vermont CRAFT, and others.
Collaborated with the Farm Labor Working Group via email and phone, which includes Edgewater, Luna Bleu, Root 5, Sweetland, and Walpole Valley farms, for planning the labor discussion sessions bringing farmers together to share successes and failures regarding hiring and retaining farm labor. The partner-farmers helped determine the location, timing, and meeting structure. Based on their input, we planned early December morning gatherings. Coordinated with the UNH Extension’s Seth Wilner, who has been deeply involved with this issue, to get his input and insights into what questions would be useful to include when bringing farmers together. He also hosted one of the sessions and helped promote events through his networks.
Designed postcard invitation for labor sessions and mailed to 350 farmers. Promotion for the sessions also included two email blasts to our farmer database, a post to our blog, and promoting through our contacts and farm service provider partners. Partner-farmers helped with outreach for the event by contacting their farmer-friends.
Held two farm labor discussion sessions, one in Newport, NH and one in White River Junction, VT. Twenty farmers participated in the group discussions and we are compiling the information collected during the sessions. The resulting data will be shared with the group and posted on our website. Farmers also came up with a wish list for tools/resources that could make finding and retaining labor easier which we will work on over the winter. We provided current available labor resources for farmers to take home from the meeting.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Made good use of the busy farm season to make progress on the areas of this work that didn’t require much farmer participation including benchmarking the current tools for finding farm labor and learning what farm labor is looking for in a job. Late fall was the time to connect with farm partners and the general farm community to plan for the discussion sessions. The farmer interest in working on this issue is high and need for this work is clear as evidenced by the enthusiastic response to the labor discussion sessions. While collecting valuable information at the two sessions (still compiling data), farmers came up with several ideas of tools or resources they thought could help them. We will follow up with these suggestions and share with farming community this winter. Measurable impact and outcomes will come over the winter as we provide requested tools connect them with useful resources, beta-testing an online directory/classified, and solidify the relationships between potential farm labor resources and the new online directory.
99 River Road
Plainfield, NH 03781
Office Phone: 603.298.5764